Skip to content

New research shows that markers for starvation were recorded in the teeth of victims of the Great Irish Famine


Researchers from Bradford and Durham have used the scientific analysis of tiny sections of teeth to piece together a clearer understanding of how people were affected by famine in Ireland, and how the introduction of maize as a famine relief food affected those who received it.

The study, undertaken by at the University of Bradford and Dr Janet Montgomery, Durham University, is the first to use the stable isotope analysis of nitrogen and carbon in human teeth to identify markers for starvation in individuals: this was possible because of the unique sample from a well-documented historical famine cemetery in Kilkenny Union workhouse, Ireland.

During the Great Famine of 1845-46, Sir Robert Peel provided relief with the importation of maize from America. This provided most of the nutrition for workhouse residents over a 2-year period.

Dr Beaumont, who led the study, explains: “There is a big difference in the measurements we see between the usual diet of potatoes and the new diet of maize, which marks when that person began to receive relief food. The changes in the measurements before that happened provide us with a unique opportunity to investigate how the body recycles itself during starvation in a time of extreme famine. We were also able to identify, in the teeth of adults, where they had survived earlier periods of famine.”

Dr Beaumont collected one tooth from each of 20 individuals excavated from the Kilkenny Union workhouse famine cemetery including some who died during childhood. The isotope values from the dentine collagen were used to provide a detailed dietary history. These were then compared with those from the bulk rib bone collagen which represents the final few years of life. These individuals were chosen to provide a range of ages and sex, but represent only a small sample of the 970 individuals recorded.

This data acts as a poignant reminder of the extreme conditions suffered by the children buried at Kilkenny, but also clearly demonstrates that the intervention provided by the introduction of maize allowed many to recover. The ability of the human body to adapt to nutritional deprivation and survive, returning to homeostasis, is clear within these profiles.

This study, which has been published in PLOS ONE, shows that using incremental dentine collagen analysis it is possible to identify periods of physiological stress such as famine in both adult and juvenile skeletons if it occurred during tooth development, i.e. up to approximately 23 years of age. This could have important forensic and archaeological applications for the identification of populations and individuals for whom nutritional stress may have contributed to their death.

Permission was granted for the scientific analysis of these individuals by the Irish Antiquities section of the National Museum of Ireland. More details about the Kilkenny Union workhouse are available in “Victims of Ireland's Great Famine” by Jonny Geber, University Press of Florida.

Further research is currently underway to investigate how the famine and relief foods affected individuals from other contemporary Irish communities.

The research has been published in PLOS ONE and is available to view here

Caption: Julia Beaumont on Spike Island, Cork, to excavate with Dr Barra O'Dhonnabhain of the University of Cork

Back to news from 2016